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The MLS playoff system has more than it's fair share of detractors. Traditional soccer fans bemoan the fact that a team that finishes with the 8th best record over the season is only 4 wins away from winning a championship (As LA Galaxy did in 2005). Other fans cry afoul at how 8 out of 13 teams make the postseason, rendering early-season games meaningless.

Well, regardless of the detractors, this is shaping up to be the wildest finish to an MLS playoff chase in years. With the Cup playoffs starting next Thursday, teams have one last chance to impress and earn their way in. Three games this weekend carry massive ramifications for teams looking to extend their season.

Colorado at Salt Lake, Los Angeles at Chicago, Kansas City at Dallas.

These four teams are clustered together within 3 points of each other. Each with one game left, and it may come down to tiebreakers, or even goal difference.

Kansas City's hot start this season (6-3-2) had many people believing that first-year coach Curt Anolfo would be the man to lead KC back to the playoffs after a two-year absence. That's not so much the feeling at Arrowhead anymore. Kansas City has fallen from the top of the Eastern Conference to 5th place, having gone 3-7-3 since the All-Star Break.

FC Dallas has nothing left to play for. They are in the playoffs. They know their seed. They know a matchup with either Chivas USA or Houston Dynamo awaits them at home next week. Who knows if coach Steve Morrow will bench his starters, which could open the door for KC. However, Dallas has a deeper bench than KC, and should prevail in this one given KC's recent run of poor form. KC stays on 37 points. They are Fire fans on Sunday.

Salt Lake has nothing left to play for, except the Rocky Mountain Cup against their rivals Colorado. In one of MLS's few bad-blood rivalries, the Stormin' Mormons are in the position to knock off their rivals in the Cup (1-1-1 record this season) and to knock them out of the playoffs. Colorado is a team in flux. They look like world-beaters one day (knocking off Chivas USA on the road last weekend), and can look abysmal the next. Head coach Fernando Clavijo's job may be resting on this game. I can see a tie here. Colorado ends up with 36 points, and is eliminated.

This is the big one. (Hence more analysis).

The one benefit Chicago and LA have is that they will know for certain exactly what they both need to make the playoffs before the last match of the regular season kicks off at Toyota Park on Sunday afternoon.

While Kansas City's season story is a literary tragedy, Chicago and Los Angeles have been cliched sports movies. Both teams start off the season poorly, untill a new player comes on. David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, perhaps the Jimmy Chitwood and Even Uglier Jimmy Chitwood of MLS arrived to help rescue their teams. Blanco succeeded, scoring 4 goals and notching 6 assists in 13 games since arriving from Mexico's Club America.

Despite Blanco's addiiton, the Fire's attack still leaves much to be desired. Costa Rican International striker Paolo Wanchope looks sluggish and out of shape; scoring only two goals in 13 games- a terrible rate of attrition for a striker who is supposed to be a focal point of the Fire's attack. The Fire's offense is in similar straits; having scored multiple goals in a game only twice since September 1 (a 2-1 win over New England and a 2-2 tie against New York). Colombian International Wilman Conde has been a huge pickup for the Fire, and has helped solidify a backline that was showing it's age. The Fire have only ALLOWED multiple goals in a game twice since the All-Star Break. This Fire team plays catanaccio, an Italian model of soccer, focusing on tough defense, rough play in the midfield, taking advantage of referee's lack of position, and capitalizing on set piece opportunities.

Los Angeles plays more free-flowing, attack-oriented soccer with strike points Landon Donovan and Honduran International Carlos Pavon. Their injury woes have largely solved themselves, and if they can get into the playoffs, it will cap a Colorado Rockies-type run of going undefeated in 7 matches (6-0-1) to come back from the soccer grave. However, last night they were playing New York, who employs similar tactics. On Sunday, can the Galaxy's strikers adjust and get through the defensive midfield and backline of Chicago to recieve pinpoint passes from #23? Two unanswered goals may put the game out of reach for either side. Chicago has only come from behind to win once all year (two weeks ago against New England). Los Angeles has done so three times in the last month, however, in each of those games, LA had a man advantage by the end of the game, and poached a goal in that time frame. The conspiracy theorists will tell you the league is influencing the refs to issue red cards and get the Galaxy and their poster-child into the playoffs. I don't buy it...yet.

It's a sold out crowd in Chicago, and not just of the Beckham jersey-wearing, puberty-going-through, thunderstick-banging type. Chicago has drawn over 20,000 fans for each of their last 4, and 5 of their last 6 games. It will be a largely pro-Fire crowd. As bad as Chicago has been at home this season (5-3-6), LA has been even worse on the road (3-7-4). I could see a tough, hard fought match with a late flurry of a finish. My heart says Fire to win, but in all reality, I think this one is headed for a gritty 1-1 draw, which would send Chicago and Colorado to the playoffs.

MLS Cup Playoff Preview next week...


Vinnie 8:01 PM  

Admittedly, I didn't read beyond your opening that describes the playoff system.

To that I say: What a retarded playoff system. Too inclusive, too dictated by lucky breaks, too inconclusive.

I'm with you--Soccer is a sport that should be determined by larger samples, and I would favor a BPL-style system where the standings are the be-all end-all. Maybe to satiate the American need for a championship game, you let the two division winners square off in a final game.

Eight of thirteen teams having a say in the champion over the course of a couple games is an absurd structure.

Mike 8:48 PM  

From a competition standpoint, I absolutely agree with you.

However, the financial realities of a still-maturing league like MLS require that there should be vested interest in as many markets as possible as late in the season as possible.

The NHL through the Original Six era had a playoff system that saw 4 of 6 teams make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Each team played from October to April to eliminate 2 teams.

However, MLS has admittedly made SOME strides in this regard. It wasn't too long ago (2004) that 8 out of 10 teams made the playoffs. With the financial situation of the league rapidly improving, and expanding, there's less of a need to keep the playoffs open, and as such, the postseason has become a little more exclusive. By 2010, it's possible with expansion that the qualification rate will be down to 8 teams out of 18 (44%). A rate not too far away from the 12 of 32 (38%) that qualify for the NFL playoffs.

Anonymous,  5:20 PM  

Currently, 8 of 13 is a little too forgiving... but 16 of 26 would be the same as hockey in the early nineties before they expanded to hockey hot-beds like Miami, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Nashville, Phoenix. Even today the NBA is 16 of 29. Not too different.

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